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When you turn on the television in Venezuela, you can always find at least two opposite versions of happenings. The Globovisión channel, among other private communication companies, usually criticizes anything President Hugo Chávez does, in a very radical way and most the time does not even listen to anyone who’s not part of the opposition. Its counterpoint is the state channel VTV, the most important of the public system. Though a little more cautious than its adversary channel, its programming is focused on the broadcast of government’s positions and initiatives.
This polarized environment is not only predominant among audio-visual media. It’s also reflected in print and electronic media. The radicalization of the political dispute apparently made editorials and analysis of communication predominant in mass media. The reader or viewer adheres to the newspaper or broadcasting channel which they prefer, using the same criteria they would use to choose the party for which they vote, that is, by political and ideological proximity. Some are red. Others are blue. Those who are uncertain use the remote control.
In spite of the strong polarization, there’s no record of media monopolization neither by the government nor by the businessmen. On the contrary, the number of television channels, for instance, has increased. According to Conatel’s (National Telecommunications Commission) figures, in 1998 there were 40 television license concessions, a number that increased to 150 in 2012. 74 of them are open signal televisions, and 75 are cable. Only 4 of the open signal TV channels have national reach, and the other 71 are private, state or communitarian channels that have regional reach.
When it comes to radio stations, the total number of license concessions increased from 338 in 1998 to 473 private radio station plus 244 communitarian stations in 2011. The government uses these numbers to answer the frequent criticism that it receives about the lack of press freedom, usually voiced by human rights organizations or the United States government.
The RCTV case
This field’s most tense moment for the government was when RCTV channel (Radio Caracas Television), the oldest in open signal television, didn’t have its license concession renewed, in March 2007. Since then, it has only been allowed to operate cable broadcasting. To government’s opponents, this decision was a punishment for the channel’s participation on the coup d’état against Chávez, in 2002.
This theory is denied by the government. “There is complete and unrestrained press freedom and thanks to this freedom, the private media can promote campaigns to destabilize the government”, says Andrés Izarra, Minister of Communication and Information, remembering the role of media companies in the overthrow that took away Chávez’s power for 48 hours. “No broadcast company was punished for this behavior. But the government is not obliged to renew a public concession to a company that, aside from having irregular documents, did not carry out the social function established by the law and the constitution. Venezuela did what other nations do in similar situations: the television license concession expires and other broadcasting company takes its position on the dial”.
Jesse Chacón, director of research company GIS XXI, was the Minister of Communication when the government decided not to renew the company’s signal. “It was the only broadcasting company that didn’t have its license concession renewed. We came to the conclusion that it was better to use the signal for other means”, he says. “In the same period, the license concessions of Televen and Venevisión were also about to expire, both of them private channels that oppose the government, and they were both renewed”.
It’s still being discussed how much the State will have to pay for the usage of RCTV’s transmitters, whose signal is now used by Teves, a public channel dedicated to sports and culture. The former minister says that this situation is a product of the Latin-American television development that used the American model rather than the European model as a role model. “In the United States, communication is business, and the field is treated by the logic of commercial interests, and that was the paradigm followed by most Latin-American countries”, he says. “Europeans think of information as public service, and their channels, at least until recently, could not be monopolized by private groups.”
Chacón believes that this model turns communication companies, through the use of public concessions, into political protagonists. “In Venezuela before Chávez, if someone wanted to be elected president he would have to agree with Cisneros group (that owns Venevisión) or with RCTV”, he says, refereeing to the two main channels of the period.
80% of open signal television, according to the Ministry of Communications figures, are explored by private companies. “In the radio system, private companies are hegemonic, the State has only one station with national reach and three stations in state localities”, lists the Ministry Andrés Azarra. To compete with the hegemony, Chávez’s government created a proposal for the democratization of communications, approved by the Constituent Assembly in1999.
A series of laws regulated the subject matter. The two most important were the one that set the norms for communitarian TVs and radio stations broadcasting, in 2002, and the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, approved in 2004 by the National Assembly and reformed in February 2011. The first created a regulatory mark that allowed the expansion of local broadcasting stations, created by communal counseling, social movements, or other associative entities. These channels, that have limited radio spectrum, form a network dedicated to broadcasting cultural programs, political debate and rendering of services.
The Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television (also known by the acronym Resorte), obliged the networks to fulfill a minimal share of 50% of national productions in series and soap operas. It established parameters to classify programs according to age range, determining fines and punishments for the abuse of violent content. It also created the Social Responsibility Fund, which subsidizes the purchase of equipment by the communitarian broadcasting stations, providing them with the condition to dispute audience with the big groups in their neighborhoods.
Despite not mentioning any censorship mechanisms before broadcastings, nor even limiting news contents, the government’s opponents criticize the law as an obstacle to press freedom. The answer on the government’s side is also tough. “One thing is freedom of press, the other is libertinism”, says Chacon. “The government didn`t adopt nor is it planning to adopt any sort of measure that offends the right to express oneself. But the private communication companies provide public service and should be regulated to guarantee that information can be received and diffused. That is true for private groups, State and communities. The era of private monopoly in media is over.”
Translation: Kelly Cristina Spinelli